These are stressful times—among the most stressful in history—and people need help. Often, they turn to their employers and specifically their leaders. But they don’t always get what they need. A new global study reports people actually prefer robots to humans for help with mental health issues. So what’s going on, and how can leaders be more empathetic, supportive and preferable to robots?
It’s important to know the issues plaguing employees are significant. In a just-released global study involving more than 12,000 people across 11 countries by Oracle and Workplace Intelligence, 78% of people reported their mental health had been negatively affected during the pandemic. In addition, people said stress, anxiety and depression were reducing their productivity (42%) and increasing poor decision making (40%).
And interestingly, 68% say when they have stress or anxiety at work, if given a choice between a robot or their boss, they would rather talk to a robot than their own manager. While the results may not indicate our future managers will all be robots, they do illustrate important ways leaders can improve and support their employees.
We typically think of artificial intelligence (AI) as offering data analytics or collaboration platforms—but this study points to a new frontier— AI for mental health. Perhaps this isn’t a negative trend, AI may be more efficient and accessible at odd hours. But perhaps the best situation would be one in which AI is available in addition to managers who offer support and empathy, engendering trust in their teams. In fact, a (different) study found employees’ mental health was positively impacted when they perceived their managers to be empathetic.
How can you be an effective leader—and one people would choose over a robot? Here are some suggestions.
Avoid judgement. In the global study, people reported they would prefer a robot because they believed it provided a judgement-free zone (34%) and an unbiased outlet to share problems (30%). The implication is clear for leaders. Be as objective as possible and offer support untainted by your own views. It is natural to have opinions. But it is important to be aware of yours and filter them out of employee discussions where you need to provide an unbiased and supportive lens.
Be efficient. Another reason people preferred robots to their managers was because they perceived them to offer quick answers to health-related issues (29%). As a manager, you obviously won’t have all the answers, nor should you offer medical advice, but a significant part of the suport you can provide is to connect people to resources for all kinds of help. You may be a supportive, listening ear tuned in for work-related issues, but you can also ensure they get connected with broader resources as well— as quickly as possible.
Be transparent. Employees said they appreciated AI because it provided information needed to do their jobs more effectively (31%). Leaders can take a lesson here and ensure they are sharing plenty of information and insight. People crave certainty and in times of ambiguity, such as these, people increasingly turn to their organizations and leaders to help make sense of things. Leaders should be transparent and as open as possible with what they know. Even when news is bad, it’s helpful for people to be informed so they can reduce uncertainty and let them take positive action.
Prioritize. Another reason people appreciate AI is because they say it reduces their stress by helping prioritize tasks (27%). This is a key way you can help your team members as well. Clarify the overall purpose and goals, and when people are overwhelmed, help them determine how to rank their responsibilities. Stress and anxiety can make it challenging to focus, complete tasks and juggle assignments. So when leaders can help people clarify what’s most important, it can reduce uncertainty and thus contribute to wellbeing.
Manage workloads. AI was also perceived as helpful when it automated tasks and reduced workloads thus preventing burnout (27%). This too is instructive for leaders. A key element of effective leadership is aligning responsibilities and talents to help ensure workloads are equitable across team members. Of course, no one will have perfect alignment between what they love to do and what they must do, but leaders should try to achieve as much alignment as possible. In addition, people crave a sense of fairness, so the most effective leaders are attuned to ebbs and flows in workloads, ensuring there is equity.
Create boundaries. People also say AI has increased their productivity (63%) and allowed them to take longer vacations (51%). Leaders can take a cue here as well. Be sure employees have what they need to get their work done—access to technology and people are examples. Also be sure employees know they can be away from work. All work, all the time has negative effects on engagement, fulfillment and productivity. Leaders should encourage people to have healthy boundaries between work and life.
Many people reported they wanted their companies to provide more access to technological support for self-service health resources (36%), on-demand counseling (35%), proactive health monitoring tools (35%), access to wellness or mediation apps (35%) and chatbots to answer health-related questions (28%). These will be terrific ways for companies to support mental health, but they can’t replace human empathy and support. Leaders still have a critical role to play in a full palette of support for employees.
To be an effective leader—and one people prefer to a robot—be as unbiased as possible and be efficient in responding and connecting people with resources. Also be open with communication and help people prioritize their work and manage workloads. Empower people to get away and reinforce healthy boundaries between work and life. AI can certainly be useful, but is best in conjunction with the uniquely human capacity for empathy and compassion leaders can provide.
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